I had a fun exchange with Laurie from Punk Rock HR yesterday about the scientific validity of psychology in the workplace. She is of the belief that psychology is pseudoscience and has at best a limited contribution to the workplace. Since I have spent the better part of my adult life studying the science of organizations, I thought it was important for me to express my disagreement. As luck would have it, this good-matured ribbing has blossomed into a full-fledged discussion (yay!). Rather than clutter Laurie’s blog with a huge comment, I will collect my thoughts on the matter here.
I will be the first to admit there is a lot of junk out there for HR practitioners to sift through. Plenty of consultants make their living peddling less than proven techniques for improving organizational communication, sales effectiveness, leadership, etc. A single trip to Barnes and Noble can overwhelm the conscientious professional with the sheer volume of work on organizational life. How do we tease apart the good stuff from the not-so-good stuff? It is a hard thing to do; I don’t even try anymore; I avoid the “psychology” section of all commercial bookstores like I avoid germ-ridden co-workers (you know who you are).
It is also important for psychologists to recognize that much of our history was less than scientific. When non-psychologists think of psychology, images of Freud, Jung and other popular psychoanalytic principles jump to mind. These individuals, for all their contributions to psychology were not scientists. Sadly, plenty of scientists have fixed the study of human thought and behavior since then, but we tend to be less interesting than someone assuring us that we have amorous intent toward our parents.
How is Psychology a Science?
Modern psychology is a science because its adherence to the scientific method. It is the same scientific method that has led to advances in physics, chemistry, medical science, and all other fields of human endeavor that are regarded as “sciency” by the public. Without getting too technical, the distinguishing characteristics of science are testing, theory building, hypothesis generation and replication. All humans observe the world around them and develop stories or theories about how it works. Sometimes those explanations involve wood nymphs, witches or vast right-wing conspiracies. What distinguishes science in general and psychology specifically is the testing of such theories. From theory, we develop specific, testable hypotheses. If we cannot develop testable hypotheses from a theory, it is near useless in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Additionally, it is important that results of hypothesis testing be replicated by other researchers; if it only happened once, it never really happened.
This is exactly what occurs in many fields of psychology. Certainly it happens in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and Social Psychology (my areas of training or expertise depending on who you ask). I am not an expert in all psychological disciplines, but I am fortunate enough to know plenty of people who are experts in their fields. As a result, I can attest that this approach is also used by neuropsychologists, clinical, developmental, cognitive, and experimental psychologists.
What about Organizational Science Specifically?
What scientific advances have psychologists made with regards to the workplace? Hundreds of peer-reviewed, scientific articles are published every year, each with a “nugget” of knowledge about organizational behavior. Here are a few scholarly outlets for the curious and the brave:
- Journal of Applied Psychology
- Personnel Psychology
- Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
- Journal of Business and Psychology
- Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice
- Journal of Organizational Behavior
- Current Directions in Psychological Science
- Psychological Bulletin
- Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
- Social Cognition
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
I am acutely aware of these contributions; for many years I had to read a huge chunk of them. Seriously, my fellow graduate student and I had to read a GINORMOUS chunk of these. For a while I even, I even served as Managing Editor for the Journal of Business and Psychology (it was equal parts painful and educational).
More important than asking what we learned about humans in organizations is what have we learned that real people can use. This question is much more difficult to answer. Our volume of work is so large and in most cases so technical that it is inaccessible to the people we are trying to reach. Here are a few things we have learned that matter to practitioners (this is not a comprehensive list, it is only stuff I can remember before Laurie finishes her beat down on me).
- Employee attitudes matter
- Employee attitudes lead to employee behaviors, which in turn lead to organizational performance.
- Organizations that do not care about employee attitudes do not care about organizational performance by extension.
- Quality leadership contributes to organizational performance.
- Leadership can be taught, it is not an immutable trait, though it may come easier to some.
- The most effective leaders use a combination of transformational and transactional leadership approaches.
- Personnel selection tools are not created equal.
- Personal interviews (particularly the unstructured) have virtually no mathematical relationship with employee performance. And everyone thinks they are the exception to this rule- yes, you too!
- Cognitive ability measures, despite their several (and non-trivial) flaws are the best selection tool that we know of. Scores on these tests predict employee performance better than just about anything else.
The Dust Settles
I am pretty sure that I have not convinced Laurie of the accuracy of my position; I have also studied the science of persuasion/attitude change and it is not as easy as typing out a few words. Thankfully, persuasion was not my intent. We must have dialogue before real persuasion happens and on this count, I suspect my morning of writing has mattered. At least I hope so, because my client’s data will not analyze itself.
Part of the reason that people still think of psychologists as old guys with beards, pipes and couches is because we have not done a good job of popularizing our discipline. We have no Einstein, Sagan, or Hawking to capture the public imagination and explain what we do (Elizabeth Loftus and Robert Cialdini have made some strides here). Too many of us are stuck in a lab, or in a sales meeting to be the advocates we so desperately need. This is why discussions like these are so important and why I am so thankful that Punk Rock HR has gifted me with this opportunity to explain who we are and what we do.
If you disagree with me, let me know! If you agree with me, let me know too!
Update: Here’s a follow up post continuing the discussion on how Psychology is a Science.